Discipleship

The Church is Full of Orphans

by John Wohlgemuth

Lead Teaching Pastor, Henderson Hills Baptist Church (Edmond, OK)

I remember the wide range of emotions that accompanied becoming a father for the first time. The overwhelming joy of seeing my son face-to-face. The awe for my wife who endured twenty hours of active labor. The fear in facing the reality of taking our son home (“You trust us enough to send us home?! You mean you’re not coming with us?!”). I knew, though, that because we loved our son, we would do everything in our power to help him grow up into the man God has called him to be—through all of the highs and lows in the process.

A similar process shows up spiritually (apart from the Father’s fear, of course). The New Testament gives us an understanding of the “life cycle” of a Christian—from birth through maturity. First Peter 2:2 calls us “newborn infants” longing for “the pure spiritual milk” that helps us “grow up into salvation.” Of course, that imagery applies to us as individuals. Growth is to occur where a believer should not act the same years after their new birth. But also think about that picture of spiritual growth in the context of the church. If new believers are similar to babies, we then must begin to think about the healthiest way for them to grow up and to be nurtured.

Our world is full of physical orphans (one estimate puts the number at 153 million, or roughly half the population of the United States). Thankfully, many Christians and others have organized funding and support for orphanages and other support ministries around the world. But everyone understands that an orphanage is not the best nurturing environment for a baby. If no other option exists then care and nourishment in a group home is better than nothing (that’s why James commands true Christians to care for vulnerable orphans in 1:27), but a nuclear family is the God-ordained best means for a child to mature, to be provided for, to be instructed, and to be loved. If that child is parentless, the best scenario remains for non-biological parents to adopt that child into their loving family.

This reality is no different in the church. For comparison’s sake (and don’t push this too far), we could compare the large church gathering on Sunday to an orphanage. Here’s how this idea has shown up in the past and even still today: a person trusts Jesus as his or her Savior and Lord, and what do we often do with them? We invite them to “attend church” (meaning, the Sunday large-group gathering). We hope that they will receive the spiritual nourishment, direction, and love that they need, but that abundant provision often does not occur. That person receives enough to stay alive, probably, but gets lost in the crowd and never really flourishes in what they were created for. They feel more like a number than a family member, even though they may have an important task to accomplish to maintain the organization.

Now compare that scenario to a different (seemingly more biblical) approach. Say that same person comes to trust in Jesus. Instead of inviting them to an event, we invite them into our lives. We invite them into our “family,” so to speak, where there are just a few of us in intimate relationship sharing life together. What I mean by this is a group of a few people not only meeting to study the Bible and to pray and to hold each other accountable, but people who go on errands together, eat meals together, serve the community together, etc. As these elements of life are shared, then questions are asked, theology is clarified, and obedience to Christ in every area of life is modeled. There is no doubt that the new believer will receive the spiritual nourishment, direction, and love they need. Not only do they get enough to stay alive, they flourish and mature as a member of a family. And they grow up into maturity more readily.

Does it not make more sense to raise up a “child” in this “family” way rather than in an “orphanage”? My challenge to us, church, is to take all of these orphans (physical orphans too!) into our lives and make them a part of a forever family, where they will receive all that they need to live the abundant life that Jesus has promised His children (John 10:10).

Though you may not believe that you can really make a difference, you can. All the Lord is looking for is a willing vessel. Although you may not be the next Billy Graham yourself, you might be the one with the opportunity to disciple him, to “parent” him spiritually. And all it takes is one who God can use to change the world; so, who is your one?

John Wohlgemuth has served as the Lead Teaching Pastor at Henderson Hills Baptist Church in Edmond, OK since 2018. Born in Enid, OK and raised in Fairview, OK, he is married to Emily and they have three sons, ages 11, 8, and 6. They met at Oklahoma State University in the engineering classroom and while participating in OSU’s athletic department.

Matthew Emerson
Dr. Matthew Y. Emerson, Dickinson Associate Professor of Religion, earned a bachelor’s degree from Auburn University and an M.Div. and Ph.D. in from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. Emerson joined the OBU faculty in 2015. He previously taught at California Baptist University, where he served as Chair of the Arts and Sciences Department in the OPS Division. Emerson has authored or co-authored over 20 publications. His research interests include the Old Testament’s use in the New Testament, early Christian interpretation, and theological method. He serves as co-Executive Director of the Center for Baptist Renewal, co-editor of the Journal of Baptist Studies, steering committee member of the Scripture and Hermeneutics Seminar, and Senior Fellow for the Center of Ancient Christian Studies. He is also a member of a number of scholarly societies. Emerson grew up in Huntsville, AL, where he met his future wife, Alicia. Married in 2006, they have five daughters. He and his wife are both members at Frontline Church in Shawnee.